Genocide in Australia
The official acknowledgement of and apology for the past, the establishment of mechanisms to help people find out about themselves and to reunite with their families where that is possible legislation. The child welfare and juvenile justice procedures.
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Genocide in Australia
Indeed, in response to the High Court's Wik decision, the Coalition government under John Howard has introduced amendments to the Native Title Act (known as the 10-point plan), which aim to extinguish native title in all but name, perpetuating the cycle of dispossession and alienation. In what has been described (not only by socialists and Aborigines themselves) as “the biggest land grab since 1788”, Howard's legislation takes from the Aborigines to give to the richest pastoralists in the land. At the time of writing, the Senate has rejected this legislation for the second time, setting the scene for a double dissolution and a general election.
Howard derides what he calls the “black armband view of history” - that is, a history which tells the truth about what happened to the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and how Australia's wealth was built on the theft of their land. He does so for both pragmatic and ideological reasons: to advantage his rich mates and make Australia safe for the mining companies, pastoral interests and capitalism generally, and to justify his assault on the gains Indigenous people have made in recent years, meagre as they are.
The Howard government has also given the go-ahead to Energy Resources Australia's Jabiluka uranium mine, situated on the traditional lands of the Mirrar people in the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park, in direct contravention of the wishes of the traditional owners. Once again, the rights of Indigenous people have been trampled over in the rush to make profits.
The government therefore wants to sweep the Stolen Generations report under the table. A crucial aspect of its strategy to enrich the miners and pastoralists is to deny any spiritual or traditional connection with the land as the basis for a native title claim - and this is the only kind of claim many of the stolen generations can make.
They must not be allowed to get away with it. In the past, Indigenous people have won rights through struggles - such as the freedom rides, the Gurindji strike and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy - in which they and their supporters took to the streets to gain popular support. Today, we need that kind of fight again.
Opinion polls, the numbers who attend demonstrations in support of Indigenous rights and the establishment of organisations like Defenders of Native Title and the Jabiluka Action Groups show that there is widespread support for justice for Indigenous Australians. That support needs to be mobilised into a powerful movement that can stop Howard and turn the tide against the rising racism that he has fostered.
This pamphlet looks at some of the issues raised by the Stolen Generations report - and in particular addresses the criticisms and disclaimers emanating from the Howard government and its supporters in big business - not to mention Pauline Hanson and her racist One Nation organisation. In order to build the kind of movement described above, we need to be able to counter Howard's arguments with the real facts. Hopefully this pamphlet is a small contribution to building such a movement.
In 1949, Millicent was four years old. That's when she and five of her siblings were taken from their parents and placed in institutions. She never saw any of them again, apart from one brother who was subsequently removed to another institution.
The authorities told Millicent that her parents didn't want her, when actually they prevented them from visiting her. After a horrific childhood consisting largely of domestic servitude, beatings and religious indoctrination, Millicent was sent into unpaid domestic service, where she was raped, bashed and slashed with a razor for resisting. On reporting the rape, she was beaten for lying. The resulting pregnancy earned her yet more beatings. Millicent was overjoyed to have a baby - someone she could love - but her joy was shortlived. They took her baby away and told her the infant had died - a lie only revealed when the two were reunited many years later.
The immense human tragedy of the stolen generations is made up of thousands of stories like Millicent's.
The practice of forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families has a long and dishonourable history, dating back to the very beginning of European settlement in Australia. The early settlers often simply kidnapped children to work for them, as personal or domestic servants, or on the land. They were effectively enslaved: paid no wages and supplied with only the barest necessities of food, shelter and clothing. In the north of Australia, this type of thing was happening up to the early twentieth century.
While settlers stole children purely for personal gain, governments and churches came up with a range of ideological justifications for the practice of systematically removing children from their families. These justifications, though on occasion presented as in some sense “benevolent”, led to the same outcome for their Aboriginal and Islander victims - lives of misery and physical, cultural and spiritual deprivation.
The motivation of the missionaries and governments also reflect a deep underlying racism. Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were seen as backward and barbaric, incapable of determining their own future and therefore without rights. They had to be “civilised”, their languages, culture and way of life destroyed, so that they could take their place - a subordinate one, naturally - in European society. Crucially, they were to be inculcated with European values and work habits so that they would be fit for service to the colonial settlers.
You didn't have to scratch the surface very far to find the real motivations behind seemingly “altruistic” actions. In 1814, for example, Governor Macquarie funded a school for Aboriginal children. Within a few years, however, it became obvious to Indigenous families that the real purpose of the school was to distance the children from their families and communities. This was an essential step in the process of separating Indigenous people from their land, which was necessary to free the land for capitalist exploitation.
Meanwhile, colonial authorities were doing nothing to curb the brutal activities of the settlers. It was the British government, embarrassed by reports of frequent massacres and atrocities, which moved to appoint a Select Committee into the condition of the Aboriginal people. But the result of this, far from providing any relief for Indigenous people, was the establishment of legal mechanisms to control the Indigenous population, restrict their movements and rights and remove their children. All this went on in the name of “protection”.
Along with “protection” went segregation. Many Aborigines, thrown off their land, deprived of the means of subsistence and forced into dependence on government handouts, drifted to the towns and set up camps. The inevitable poverty, malnutrition and disease in the camps made them an embarrassment to the settlers and the colonial governments. So it was planned to remove Indigenous people to reserves in areas the Europeans didn't want, segregating them from the white population and restricting their movement. By 1911, the Northern Territory and every State except Tasmania had some form of “protectionist legislation”, giving the government-appointed Protection Board or Chief Protector virtually total control over every aspect of Aborigines' lives, and, crucially, legal guardianship of all the children. The sham of “protection” was indicated by the fact that the enforcement of protectionist legislation was carried out by “protectors” who were usually police officers.
The exception, Tasmania, simply removed all its Aboriginal inhabitants to Cape Barren Island and thereafter claimed it had no Aboriginal population, just a few “half-castes”.
Throughout the nineteenth century, massacres, disease and malnutrition took a heavy toll, leading to a serious decline in the full descent Indigenous population. However, the mixed descent population was increasing, due no doubt to the widespread practice of the rape of Aboriginal women and girls by white settlers. These developments led to a somewhat different approach from the authorities. In social Darwinist “survival of the fittest” terms, the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were “doomed races”, destined to extinction because they couldn't compete with a more “advanced” society. The task of government and missionaries was therefore to “smooth the dying pillow”. Indigenous people of mixed descent, however, were to be absorbed into European society and forced to join the workforce. This policy of “merging” would both save the government money and provide cheap labour for the developing capitalist economy, and it made the removal of children an even more vital part of the process, to keep full descent and mixed descent Aborigines apart.
Definitions of “Aboriginality” were arbitrarily changed to fit government policy and facilitate the break-up of families and communities. Across the country, there were some 67 definitions of “Aboriginality”, enshrined in over 700 pieces of legislation. People were defined as “full blood” or “half caste” and there were further offensive divisions such as “quadroon” and “octoroon”.
The first national discussion of the “Aboriginal problem” took place in 1937, at a Commonwealth State Native Welfare Conference. It was here that the notion of “merging” became the policy of “assimilation”, which formed the basis for government action right up to the 1970s. The difference between “merging” and “assimilation” was largely one of degree: an intensification and extension of control over the Indigenous population. Though couched in seemingly high-minded phrases about enabling mixed descent Aborigines to “take their place in the white community on an equal footing with the whites” and “improving their lot”, the authorities began from the implicit notion that there was nothing of value in Aboriginal culture. Aboriginality was to be destroyed by removing “half-caste” children from their communities, their language and their cultural heritage. Assimilation was not a sharp break from what had gone before, simply a refinement.
Moreover, the practices which occurred under assimilation were racist through and through. To return to Millicent's story: the reason given for taking the children was that “the authorities decided us kids could pass as whitefellas”. But at the notorious Sister Kate's Home in Western Australia where Millicent spent her childhood, she got a very different message:
“They said it was very degrading to belong to an Aboriginal family and that I should be ashamed of myself, I was inferior to whitefellas. They tried to make us act like white kids, but at the same time we had to give up our seat for a whitefella because an Aboriginal never sits down when a white person is present.”
All States had child welfare legislation which allowed children - black or white - to be taken from their parents if the children were deemed to be “neglected”, “uncontrollable” or “destitute”. Prior to 1937, however, most States preferred to use the protectionist legislation when taking Indigenous children, because that way they didn't have to justify anything before a court. The authority of the Chief Protector or the Board was sufficient.
But even after 1940, when child welfare legislation was used instead, “proof of neglect” could easily be dispensed with. In many cases, “Aboriginality” was sufficient “proof”, and the poverty in which Aborigines were forced to live made them targets because it could be argued the children were “destitute”. Girls who ran away from situations of sexual abuse or got pregnant were labelled “uncontrollable”. The separations were carried out with extreme brutality, traumatising the children and their parents for life.
“Early one morning in 1952 the manager from Burnt Bridge Mission came to our home with a policeman. I could hear him saying to Mum, `I am taking the two girls and placing them in Cootamundra Home.' My father was saying, `What right have you?' The manager said he can do what he likes, they said my father had a bad character (I presume they said this as my father associated with Aboriginal people). They would not let us kiss our father goodbye, I will never forget the sad look on his face…That was the last time I saw my father, he died within two years after…Next morning we were in court. I remember the judge saying, `These girls don't look neglected to me'. The manager was saying all sorts of things. He wanted us placed in Cootamundra Home. So we were sent away…”
Children were routinely taken from their mothers at birth. Her consent was sometimes waived, sometimes forced from her with threats, or she was simply told the child died.
“My mother told us that the eldest daughter was a twin…And in those days, if Aboriginals had twins or triplets, they'd take the babies away. Mum swore black and blue that boy [the twin] was alive. But they told her that he had died. I only found out a couple of years ago - that boy, the nursing sister took him. A lot of babies were not recorded.”
Often, too, the parents and children were tricked:
“I was at the post office with my Mum and Auntie [and cousin]. They put us in the police ute and said they were taking us to Broome…But when we'd gone [about ten miles] they stopped and threw the mothers out of the car. We jumped on our mothers' backs, crying, trying not to be left behind. But the policeman pulled us off and threw us back in the car. They pushed the mothers away and drove off, while our mothers were chasing the car, running and crying after us…When we got to Broome they put me and my cousin in the Broome lock-up. We were only ten years old. We were in the lock-up for two days waiting for the boat to Perth.”
Children who were left temporarily in “homes” or even hospitals simply disappeared.
“A mother [single teenager] had a child in a home, and went out to provide some sort of basis for rearing the child…when the mother came back, they told her that the child had died. And 25 years later we have a request from a person to find his mother…(she) now has gone through the grieving of the person dying and now coming to terms with his resurrection.”
Siblings who were stolen were often placed separately, or even when placed together, their identities and kinship were not revealed. The inquiry gives the example of one witness who, in a seeming act of gratuitous cruelty, was “introduced to his brother on the day that brother was departing the institution for a foster placement.” At a conference following the release of the report in Melbourne in 1997, an Aboriginal speaker recalled how he, along with an older boy, was summoned one day to the office of the institution in Ballarat where the two of them had lived for several years, introduced to an Aboriginal woman and told she was their mother.
And you didn't have to be stolen to experience the effects of the practice:
“Every morning our people would crush charcoal and mix that with animal fat and smother that all over us, so that when the police came they could only see black children…We were told always to be on the alert and, if white people came, to run into the bush or run and stand behind the trees as stiff as a poker…and hide…And if the Aboriginal group was taken unawares, they would stuff us into flour bags and pretend we weren't there. We were told…if we sneezed…we'd be taken off and away from the area…During the raids on the camps it was not unusual for people to be shot - …in the arm or the leg. You can understand the terror that we lived in…”
The pace of removals increased through the 1950s and 1960s. Despite the difficulty in establishing precise numbers (partly because of lack - or falsification - of documentation, partly because many removals were illegal even under the various racist laws in operation) the inquiry concluded that between 1910 and 1970, between one in three and one in ten children were forcibly removed, and “[I]n that time not one Indigenous family has escaped the effects…”.
One of the most heart-rending aspects of the report is reading about the Indigenous parents who blamed themselves for the loss of their children. The NSW branch of Link-Up (an organisation which works to reunite separated families) reported to the inquiry:
“…we found that Aboriginal women were unwilling and unable to speak about the immense pain, grief and anguish that losing their children had caused them…We see that they judge themselves harshly, never forgiving themselves for losing their children - no matter that they were part of ongoing systematic removal of Aboriginal children…They were made to feel failures; unworthy of loving and caring for their own children; they were denied participation in the future of their community.”
The accounts of those who observed this pain show clearly how the lives of the parents, and the wider Indigenous community, were shattered.
“I remember my Aunty, it was her daughter that got taken. She used to carry these letters around with her. They were reference letters from the whitefellas in town…[saying that] she was a good, respectable woman…She judged herself and she felt the community judged her for letting the welfare get her child…She carried those letters with her, folded up, as proof, until the day she died.”
Such accounts also show how the practice of stealing their children is at the root of many problems experienced by Indigenous people today, particularly substance abuse.
“My parents were continually trying to get us back. Eventually they gave up and started drinking. They separated. My father ended up in jail. He died before my mother. On her death bed she called his name and all us kids. She died with a broken heart.”
Non-Indigenous families who adopted children were also lied to - told that mothers who were searching for their child were dead, or had refused to take responsibility for them. Some of these families told the inquiry they are wracked with guilt and regret that they were unknowingly complicit in such barbarism.
“We would never have deprived any mother of her child, or any child of its mother…The doctor told me how this child's mother was very young [she was actually 20]…plus the baby was never wanted right from the start. If this was true, why did she take her poor frail baby home…? He would not feed. She took him back [to the hospital] and it was the last she saw of him. She said they would not give him back…”
“In 1960 my wife and I applied to adopt an Aboriginal baby, after reading in the newspapers that these babies were remaining in institutionalised care…Later that year we were offered a baby who had been cared for since birth in a Church run Babies Home…We were told, and truly believed, that his mother was dead and his father unknown…”
Despite the love of his adoptive family, this child, Ken, grew up feeling isolated and alienated, subjected to constant racism, and several times attempted suicide.
“…When Ken was eighteen he found his natural family, three sisters and a brother. His mother was no longer living. She died some years earlier when Ken was four. Because of the long timespan, strong bonds with his family members could not be established.”
Although supposed neglect provided the justification for removing children from their parents, many children never experienced such terrible conditions and abuse until they were taken away.
“And for them to say she [mother] neglected us! I was neglected when I was in this government joint down there. I didn't end up 15 days in a hospital bed [with bronchitis] when I was with me mum and dad.”
“These are people telling you to be Christian and they treat you less than a bloody animal. One boy, his leg was that gangrene we could smell him all down the dormitories before they finally got him treated properly.”
The luckier ones were adopted; others went to foster families, sometimes a succession of them. But even those who were fortunate enough to be placed with loving families felt and regretted the effects of separation (see the discussion of “benefits” below). Often too, the adoptions or fostering arrangements didn't work out. Possibly the most notorious case of this was that of James (Russell) Savage, who was not only removed from his family, but from the country when his adoptive family moved to the USA. Like most stolen children, Russell had severe problems growing up, and ended up thrown out on the streets at the age of twelve. Worse was to come: several years ago, after getting involved with drugs and alcohol like so many other stolen children, he ended up in jail for life on murder and rape charges, narrowly escaping the death penalty. The scandal surrounding this case put a spotlight on the whole practice of stealing Indigenous children.
In keeping with the objectives of the assimilation policy, many children were not told of their Indigenous background. Children were bullied into adopting white ways of living and thinking, only to suffer abuse and denigration at home and school for the darkness of their skin. Others were taught racist attitudes towards Indigenous people only to find - often because of constant taunting about their complexion - that they themselves belonged to the people towards whom they felt disgust. The denigration of all things Aboriginal was one of the most common experiences reported to the inquiry.
“During this placement [with a foster family], I was acutely aware of my colour, and I knew I was different from the other members of their family. At no stage was I ever told of my Aboriginality…When I'd say…`why am I a different colour?' they would laugh at me and tell me to drink plenty of milk, `and then you will look more like us.' The other sons would call me names such as `their little Abo' and tease me. At the time I didn't know what this meant, but it did really hurt…”
“We were told our mother was an alcoholic and that she was a prostitute and she didn't care about us. They [foster family] used to warn us that when we got older we'd have to watch it because we'd turn into sluts and alcoholics, so we had to be very careful. If you were white you didn't have that dirtiness in you. It was in our breed, in us to be like that.”
But generally speaking, those who fared the worst were those - the vast majority - who were put into mostly Church-run institutions, such as Sister Kate's Home, Kinchela Boys' Home, Cootamundra Girls' Home and so on. The experiences from these institutions remain like a nightmare. Many inmates remember the constant hunger:
“There was no food, nothing. We was all huddled up in a room…like a little puppy-dog…on the floor… Sometimes at night time we'd cry with hunger, no food…We had to scrounge in the town dump, eating old bread, smashing tomato sauce bottles, licking them. Half of the time the food we got was from the rubbish dump.”
On top of that, there were cruel punishments for the slightest “offence”:
“I remember once, I must have been 8 or 9, and I was locked in the old morgue. The adults who worked there would tell us of the things that happened in there, so you can imagine what I went through. I screamed all night, but no-one came to get me.”
“I've seen girls naked, strapped to chairs and whipped. We've all been through the locking up period, locked in dark rooms. I had a problem of fainting when I was growing up and I got belted every time I fainted…I've seen my sister dragged by the hair into those block rooms and belted because she's trying to protect me.”
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